Starting conversations on social and emotional learning with parents and teachers is critical for building family engagement

An analysis with schools in Mumbai and Pune

Build back better” and “build back equal” have become familiar slogans used to capture a global commitment to redressing educational inequities and system failures brought to center stage during the COVID-19 pandemic. These slogans are also a way for decisionmakers, educators, and communities to verbalize how and why our education systems are not adequately and inclusively serving all students and families. The Akanksha Foundation, a civil society organization based in Mumbai that works with government schools, is using “build back better” to create momentum for promoting the social and emotional learning (SEL) and well-being of students.

Akanksha is building this momentum through fostering intentional conversations between families and teachers on how to ensure that schools are not just preparing children academically, but also promoting SEL alongside civics education and work readiness skills development. In research conducted in collaboration with the Center for Universal Education (CUE) at Brookings, Akanksha discovered that parents and teachers have different beliefs and perceptions about the purpose of school. Rather than viewing these differences as a hurdle to building back better, Akanksha is using this as an opportunity to start critical dialogues on SEL and build synergy between schools and families.

The rationale for social and emotional learning

According to a study on multidimensional poverty—which measures health, education, and standard of living—roughly a quarter of Indians are living in multidimensional poverty. As in other parts of the world, the pandemic has increased food insecurity, lack of sufficient medical services, poverty, unemployment, and interruptions in school in India—all of which negatively impact students’ well-being. Akanksha is using a building back better approach to acknowledge students’ experiences with multidimensional poverty, and to bring communities together to address learning gaps and the social and emotional needs of children and their families.

Established in 1991 as a group of student volunteers, Akanksha is now a professional institution and network of over 700 educators, staff, and volunteers. They are on a mission to provide equitable and quality educational opportunities to over 10,000 marginalized children in 27 government K-10 schools in the cities of Mumbai, Pune, and Nagpur. Akanksha’s teaching and learning approach focuses on the holistic physical and mental development of students and draws on Emory University’s Social, Emotional and Ethical Learning curriculum. Akanksha is using this curriculum alongside teacher professional development activities, family engagement strategies, and systems change efforts to build a culture of well-being in schools.

The need for conversations between families and teachers

Holding intentional conversations with parents and teachers is a step toward building greater alignment and collaboration between families and schools on the importance of SEL. According to one teacher leader from a Mumbai school, “Children studying in our schools often come from households and communities where they experience trauma, be it physical or mental, regularly. SEL plays a key role here in giving them a platform to talk about and learn healthy mechanisms to cope with this trauma. Additionally, a healthy and balanced mind also strengthens their academic abilities.” Integrating SEL with academic development is shown to foster educational success.

As a member of the Family Engagement in Education Network (FEEN), Akanksha knows that family engagement is critical to transforming education systems to better serve children, families, and educators. Started by CUE, the FEEN is a peer-learning network made up of over 50 member teams representing government jurisdictions, educator and parent associations, and civil society organizations from 12 countries around the world. In addition to being active in the FEEN, Akanksha has been using the Conversation Starter Tools to capture the perspectives of teachers, parents, and students on the purpose of education and their level of trust and alignment, along with other measures. They are using the findings to inform conversations between families and schools that lead to evidence-based strategies to increase family engagement. The tools include checklists for contextualizing the survey language and design, as well as guidance on how to analyze and use data to inform conversations. The tools are part of “Collaborating to transform and improve education systems: A playbook for family-school engagement” and are currently being revised and internationally validated in collaboration with the FEEN.

What families and teachers are saying

Between December 2021 and January 2022, Akanksha surveyed 323 parents and 109 educators (teachers, school leadership, counselors, and administrators) in government schools in Mumbai and Pune. The findings from these surveys showed that parents and teachers are on different pages when it comes to the purpose of school, and that greater trust and alignment are needed. Parents emphasized academic learning as the main purpose of school, whereas teachers prioritized SEL. Over half of teachers (54 percent) believed SEL was the main purpose of school compared to those who saw civics education (19 percent) and an economic purpose (20 percent)—or gaining work readiness skills—as the priority. Only a small percentage of teachers (7 percent) saw academics as the main purpose of education.

On the other hand, most parents (42 percent) believed that academic preparation was the main purpose of school, followed by civics education (21 percent) and SEL (21 percent). Less than a quarter (16 percent) saw the main purpose of school as economic. This trend held true for parents across gender and age of their child (kindergarten through secondary school). However, parents with lower education levels prioritized academics to a greater extent than parents with higher education levels. This is likely because academic and work skills are seen as increasing social mobility, especially among groups who are historically marginalized by class, caste, or urban or rural residence.

Teachers rightly perceived that parents prioritized academic preparation as one of the main purposes of education. However, parents believed that teachers also prioritized academics over other purposes, which was not the case. As one school leader in Mumbai stated, “Parents may not be aware of the school’s role in children’s SEL development” in the same way they see schools as leading students’ academic preparation. This perception gap is shown in Figure 1 below, where there is a notably larger difference in perceptions on academics and SEL as the main purpose of school.

Figure 1. 

Figure 1. Perceptions on the most important purpose of school

Utilizing data to further conversations and family engagement

Surveying parents and teachers is just the first step in understanding their values and beliefs on education and utilizing evidence to spark conversations. Akanksha will use their survey findings toward three key actions to increase family engagement and promote systems transformation in their partner schools.

  1. Facilitate intentional conversations with parents and teachers to discuss different beliefs on education and why SEL is critical to teaching and learning. Akanksha holds conversation circles with parents every three months on an important educational topic and will build data and evidence from these surveys into their conversations. The conversations will help educators understand what parents know about SEL, and to listen to their concerns about the increased emphasis on SEL in teaching. Likewise, parents can listen to teachers on how and why SEL is important for their classrooms, experience examples of SEL, and discuss how teachers and parents can work together to promote SEL alongside academic, economic, and civic skills development.
  2. Support teachers to integrate academics and SEL into their teaching through training and coaching. Although many teachers are excited about the increased focus on SEL in teaching and learning and are confident in how to integrate SEL into their teaching and classrooms, other teachers need time and support. Creating a supportive environment for teachers and a community of practice can encourage teachers to help each other in this process.
  3. Ensure that school-level policies and decisions reflect principles and evidence on SEL, and that systemic changes involve parents and teachers. In addition to using SEL to inform teaching and learning and school-family collaborations, schools need to consider how their policies, such as school discipline, reflect principles of SEL and how schools support an ethos of well-being alongside academic, economic, and civics preparation. Akanskha is working with educators, leaders, parents, and students to build this common language on SEL.

In order to “build back better,” parents and families must have spaces where they can discuss their different perspectives on education with teachers and school leaders. Data is critical to informing these conversations. Intentional and data-informed discussions can lead to greater trust, as well as meaningful collaboration. Akanksha is still trying to develop its approach for increasing family engagement, but these conversations are an important step to working more inclusively and intentionally with parents.